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Posts Tagged ‘black newspapers’

MC900433938I have posted before about the value of black newspapers and the goldmine of information they have. I think newspapers, like Freedmen’s Bureau records, are an important resource that haven’t yet been made widely accessible and easy to research. However, great strides have been made by various providers, including the Library of Congress, digitizing newspapers. They are still time-consuming to search, but I suppose anything worthwhile in genealogy is that way. I was even surprised to recently discover that the local newspaper of Montgomery County, MD where my ancestors lived was digitized bythe Maryland State Archives. That paper has been on my “to do” list for years. It was not a black newspaper, but I still want to search it for relevant news of the times.

The Chicago Defender was founded in 1905 by Robert Abbott and eventually became the largest and most popular black-owned newspaper in the nation. The paper was famous for detailing lynchings and racial oppression, to referring to blacks as “The Race” and for putting “(white)” after white people’s names in the paper the same way white papers did to black people. The Defender was  a driving force in convincing Southern blacks to migrate to the North. More than 100, 000 black people came to Chicago alone between 1916-1918.

What I didn’t realize until I read my friend Tim Pinnick’s book was that the small, rural towns many of our ancestors migrated from were often covered in these large urban papers. It made sense I suppose: people wanted news from their towns. But I would have never searched in a Northern paper looking for news of my family, especially if they didn’t live there. Tim’s book explains that the papers hired correspondents from those small towns who submitted news. There would be a page called “Tennessee News” and then perhaps 20 or 30 paragraphs, one for each community. The same for North Carolina and other states.

I have recently been searching the Chicago Defender through Proquest Historical Newspapers which is available from my local library (and able to be searched from home!). I was surprised to find that one of my Holt relatives, Annabelle Holt Crowder, who had lived in Chicago for a time, was actually one of the correspondents for her small town of Decaturville, TN! That meant she wrote a lot about her family. Her husband Dave was the principal of the black high school, a revered man for whom the school was later named for.

The tidbits of local history gleaned from these columns is simply priceless. In addition to marriages, births and deaths, they talked about who was sick, who was moving, the black schools and politics, the benevolent and lodge organizations, the teachers and farmers and of course, the ever-prominent black churches and ministers. The articles are filled with visits from out of town relatives and I thought to myself as I read that it looked tome like they spent all their free time socializing! But, because I pulled articles form mostly the late 20s and early 30s, I had to remember there was no television, and radios and cars were fairly new.

There is of course lots of juicy family history, especially because the articles often mentioned the town where people were visiting from, as well as specifically naming parents, siblings, grandkids, etc. Here are a couple of snippets I found from my local TN towns:

September 1928

September 1928

Richard Kendall was indeed a Civil War veteran, and this article gives the names and locations of his relatives from all over the place. Imagine if you were one of his descendants.

This next one names several of my Holt relatives (Lawson was my ggrandfather). I was most fascinated to discover that they enjoyed fox hunting! I would have never guessed that. Notice also how they say “motored to” instead of “drove to.”

November 1930

November 1930

Here’s one more:

April 1930

April 1930

I’ve had luck before with the Indianapolis Freeman newspaper, and I’ve got to believe similar articles may be found in the Pittsburgh Courier and other large black newspapers of the times.

Take a look and let me know if you have any luck finding any of your small towns. It’s important to mention that MOST newspapers are not online and are not digitized, but there were in fact hundreds of black newspapers.

P.S.-Tim has a truly wonderful lecture on researching black newspapers on YouTube. It’ll teach you almost everything you need to know to get started!

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I recently had one of those amazing moments in genealogy that reaffirmed my belief that I was meant to this work, called to do this work, by forces beyond my comprehension.

I posted awhile ago about breaking through a brick wall using black newspapers. I had been stuck trying to trace my ancestor James Holt. I am really trying to find all the branches of the Holt family that left the area of Hardin County, Tennessee, and there were lots that left at various times & planted roots elsewhere.

Recently I was contacted by the granddaughter of that man, James Holt. She had been searching for her roots online and found me. We had a tearful & joyous conversation, as we shared stories about our lives and our historical paths. I had reclaimed another family member.

It gets even better. She shared wonderful photos of James M. Holt & his family. My heart leapt as I gazed upon this ancestor of mine who had left Tennessee, the son of an enslaved woman, and blazed a trail across the states (and I mean literally, in each census he is living in a different place) as a successful Methodist minister. Then he attended law school in Mississippi and practiced as a very successful lawyer in Indianapolis. One of the photos below shows him, I assume, in his law office surrounded by legal books.

James Holt & Family

The story didn’t end there. After talking more, I realized that one of my unidentified photos may have been her father. This is mainly because of her description of him as a police officer. And of course, yes–it turned out to be him! She was thrilled to have a photograph she had not seen before, and I couldn’t believe this obscure photograph I hadn’t looked at in years turned out to be him. Another unidentified kin–reclaimed. This experience just warmed by heart, and affirmed for me why I love genealogy so much.

Ferdinand Holt

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Recently, I solved a genealogical mystery that I’d had for many, many years. As fellow genealogists, you can imagine how immensely satisfying this was. The solution utilized many tools, but black newspapers and the ease with which we can now search some of them deserves the biggest praise for solving the puzzle. My friend Tim Pinnick, who offers a class in newspapers at Family Tree University and a free e-newsletter, has been preaching and teaching about black newspapers for years.  He has even written a book on the topic, which I would highly recommend for your personal library.

The puzzle starts in Hardin County, TN, where one branch of my research is centered. The 1880 census showed two black men named “James Holt”, around the same age. One was living with his brother, one was newly married and living with his wife. For years I thought they were the same man, and the census taker had made an error. Only through deed records did I realize they were different men. The marriage of the 2nd James was not shown in marriage records, but his wife is listed in the land records when he is selling land, thus delineating him from the other James, who had a different wife at the same time. To further confuse—the 2nd James married the sister of the wife of the 1st James. But I digress.


About 4 years ago, I found this 2nd James living in Obion County, TN in 1900. I was pretty sure it was the same man (his kids had names like Phlenarie, Ferdinand & Ollie), but he had a different wife (Alora). His occupation was listed as a minister. And that’s where my trail ran cold—again. I simply could never find him again and realized he was probably moving a lot with the church. This is the 1900 entry for him & his family:


A family relative had saved oral history, pictures & other memorabilia with regard to this family. One photo showed a well-dressed black couple labeled “Mr. and Mrs. George and Ollie Knucklis.”

A separate postcard was addressed to “Aunt Nannie” and was signed Ollie. Perhaps this Ollie was the daughter of James Holt listed in the 1900 census? That hunch turned out to be right. The photographer’s studio from the picture was located in Chattanooga. It is there in 1930, and 1910 that I found the couple living. However, in 1920 I found them in Indianapolis, IN (Ollie was misspelled as Dollie). Hmm.

I used the Indiana records at Familysearch.org (marriage & death) to try to look for Ollie or any of her siblings in Indianapolis & I found a Ferdinand Holt who looked promising as her brother. Ancestry had indexed the Indianapolis Star newspaper, and a search in that paper turned up a court case (my specialty) between George & Ollie Knucklis. James Holt was listed next to Ollie’s name—could that be her father? It had not occurred to me to look for him in Indianapolis. I don’t know why–I suppose I was focused on the children by now.

A census search for him found a James Holt, born in TN, living in Indianapolis in 1920 & 1930 but the wife is different (now Harriet) and his occupation is lawyer. Well, this couldn’t be the man I was looking for—he was a minister after all…right? Short answer, of course it was him. My GenealogyBank subscription finally got put to good use, and I searched the black newspaper The Indianapolis Freemen which is archived on the site. Searching James Holt (and later J.M. Holt) turned up numerous articles on this popular, politically active man. I learned that he had been a prominent minister—then went to law school at Central in Louisville & became a lawyer! A profile in the paper even turned up a picture of him—genealogy solid gold:

Articles described his ministry in other states (he was all over the place) including his stint in Jacksonville, FL which is where he was in the 1910 census. I was able to eventually find his subsequent marriages and also his death certificate in Indianapolis. The marriage record for his son Ferdinand made everything conclusive when it noted his parents were James Holt and Mintha Barnes. Wow.

Part of what also helped is simply growing in my analytical skills over the years. I don’t think I could have solved this five years ago. I wrote up a five-page PDF file of this research and my approach to solving it, if you’re interested email me and I’ll send you a copy.

This is the part of genealogy that just makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! The story the newspapers outlined about this James Holt—the son of an enslaved woman—was fascinating. Without the Indianapolis Freemen newspaper, I would never have realized this was the same person…there were just too many changes.  Just another chapter I have reclaimed from the annals of our precious often-times lost history.

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